The Effects of Gunfire
By Patrick McSherry
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for information on the Spanish Mauser
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information on the Krag-Jorgensen Rifle
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information on the Lee Rifle
The weapons used by the various army regiments and the U.S. Marine
Corps represented variations in the evolution of firearms. Not everyone
agreed that it was a good idea to make the leap from the 45-70
single shot rifle to the Krag Jorgensen rifle
or the Lee-Metford rifle with their multi-shot
magazines. for a variety of reasons.
First, some believed that the smaller calibers of the Mauser,
Lee and Krag
were a mistake since they did not have the "take down" power of the
large caliber 45-70 "Trapdoor."
They argued that, eventhough the smaller caliber weapons would wound and
eventually kill the enemy, the goal was to stop their attack immediately
and believed that the larger caliber weapons could do this more
Some advocates believed that using a magazine weapon was a mistake as
soldiers would waste ammunition by not taking the time to aim properly,
something that a single shot weapon would force them to do. The
"useless" expenditure of ammunition would raise the war cost, and would
create logistical issues if the soldiers expended the ammunition faster
than it could be supplied. Conversely, it was argued that the smaller
caliber ammunition weighed less, and therefore a soldier could carry
more of it.
The smalller caliber weapons also used smokeless powder. Not only did
the lack of smoke help conceal the soldier's firing location, the
smokeless powder allowed for higher muzzle velocity. This allowed
for a flatter trajectory of flight of the bullet, meaning less
correction was necessary when firing, and the soldiers could get a
better aim. However, it was argued that the velocity was too great and
the round would pass through the enemy's body without causing serious
damage (i.e., it would pass through a bone creating a small hole rather
than breaking the bone and stopping the individual).
Initially, it was claimed that the Spanish were using explosive
ammunition. However, it was later discovered that the Mauser,
Krag and Lee
rounds had a tendencey to wobble at shorter ranges, meaning that when
the bullet hit, it did not necessarily hit point first. When it hit at
an angle at high velocity (called "keyholing"), it had an inadvertent
explosive effect, creating far more injury. At longer ranges, this
effect did not occur. This must be remembered when reading some of the
The accounts below reflect the findings and conclusions of the men in
the field who witnessed the effects of the gunfire from these various
image showing the cartridges of the four major longarms used during the
Spanish American War.
General notes on the small caliber
weapons (Mauser, Krag-Jorgensen and Lee Rifles):
Nicholas Senn, Chief Surgeon, U.S.
"No further doubt can remain in regard to
the difference in the mortality of gunshot wounds inflicted with the large
and small caliber bullets. The
cases...appear to prove that the danger incident to gunshot wounds of
the chest made by the small projectile, consists in complicating
injuries involving the heart and large blood vessels, and that, in the
absense of such injuries the prognosis is favorable."
Dr. Orlando Ducker, American Medical Association:
"The effectiveness of rifles of small caliber but of great initial
velocity like the Krag Jorgensen, Lee-Metford
or Mauser, for
instance, should be considered settled ....Another fact remains to be
proven, whether the mortality is greater from the use of modern or
old-style [large caliber] rifles. In the case of our own troops troops
[at the Battle of Cuzco Well] the fatality was greater to the
proportion of wounded than formerly. However, that will require\ further
Capt. H. Eugene Stafford, 71st New York Volunteer Infantry:
"No explosion is produced by the Mauser ball...although there are reports to the
contrary. It is supposed at certain distances, like the Krag-Jorgensen,
to have an explosive effect. [This is because] occasionally the Mauser [bullet] seems to turn over in its
course. The effect is bad, as the bullet is long and thin. The wounds,
however, are mostly clear cut. There is little shock unless the viscera
or chest are struck. There is little pain as compared with the wounds
from Remingtons and larger bullets. The bleeding is not so great as in
the old [larger caliber] wounds...The
[Mauser] bullets inflicted what might seem to be
fatal wounds, yet patients are on the rapid road to recovery.
Some of them entered the mouth and came out in different places behind and
under the ear and through the neck without doing vital damage. One went
from cheek to cheek, breaking both jawbones, but was not fatal. One man
was shot just above the left eye, apparently while lying down and aiming
his gun. The bullet passed through the eye, down and out of the left
shoulder. I had to cut out the eye, but the man will get well. We cannot
yet tell what the poisonous effect of the bullets will be, but expect that
it will be slight. Small wounds have
healed with wonderful rapidity..."
N. G. Gonzales, Cuban Army:
"...Of the wounded none are in
serious danger except a stevedore who accompanied the party. As he was
stooping over the boat a Mauser
ball passed through his shoulder, perforated his lung and passed through
his head at the jaws. But the Mauser is a most
humane weapon. Hit by Springfield or
revolver bullets, several of the expeditionaries would have lost limbs.
As it is, most of them will be ready for fighting again in a fortnight."
Grover Flint, Newspaper correspondent who traveled with the Cuban army:
"The Spanish regulars are armed with the
Mauser rifle which
has great range and high penetrative powers. It was found by the Cubans
that the wounds from the rifle were easily curable, the speed of the
bullet is such that it will pass through the bones of the leg or arm,
not breaking them, but merely leaving a small round hole...
Pvt. Charles Johnson Post, 71st New York Volunteer Infantry:
"...It was our army's first
experience with the high velocity Mauser
bullets that burned like a cautery as they went through and
left but a tiny puncture.
The Krag-Jorgensen Rifle:
Capt. H. Eugene Stafford, 71st New York
"From my experience wuth the Spaniards
whom I attended, I
found that the Krag-Jorgensen ball had a similar effect to the Mauser. It
is a little larger calibre; that was about the only difference..."
The 45-70 "Trapdoor Rifle:
From the Clay Butler Letter
which mentions the "HARVARD Incident"
"...The worst thing was the fight on board.
Monday night about 12 o’clock we were aroused by the noise of guns and the
orders were “every man to his place.” The prisoners had made a rush, I
suppose to escape. The guards fired into them, and about 50 soldiers left
here to guard the stores, rushed back and opened fire. Six men were killed
and about a dozen or so badly hurt. I was one of the boys detailed to go
back among them after the fight and carry the dead and wounded down to the
sick bay. I was barefooted, and just think of
wading into a deck all covered with blood, and men lying around shot in
all sorts of places. But a fellow gets used to it, and we hustked them
down as if they were so many sacks of flour. Those
Springfield rifles tear awful holes in a
man’s body, about the size of half a dollar..."
From a letter from Sgt/ Henry Madert, 1st District of Columbia Volunteers:
afterward that the bullets from our Springfield
rifles made such large wounds at close range that the Spaniards
called them light artillery guns, and said they could not fight against
any such guns."
Flint, Newspaper correspondent who traveled with the Cuban army:
"...the Spanish irregulars are armed
with Remington and Springfield rifles. The
wounds from these were more fatal [than those causes by the Mauser] The bones,
when struck, were smashed to splinters and the bullet in its egress
would tear the flesh frightfully, leaving deep holes and lacerations.
With the primitive hospital accommodations the Cubans managed to save a
large percentage of those wounded by the Mauser rifle, but even with
excellent hospital accommodations tehre would be little hope for the
Bruce Payne, 1st Nebraska Volunteer Infantry,
Co. D (and distant relative of Willa Cather, the author):
"The Springfield shoots a lead ball which flattens out when it strikes a
man and makes a ghastly wound."
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"Effects of Rifle Balls," New
York Tribune. July 25, 1898, 3. (Capt. H. Eugene Stafford).
"First at the Front," Evening
Star. (Washington DC), August 11, 1898, 12. (Sgt. Henry Madert
Gonzales, N. G., In Darkest
Cuba. (Columbia, SC: The State Company, 1922), 81.
"Letters from Alton's Sailor Boys," Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, IL)
July 20, 1898, 2.
Letters from Nicholas Senn,
Chief Surgeon, U.S. Volunteers. Reprinted from the Journal of the
American Medical Association (Chicago: American Medical Association, 1899
"Modern Bullets,"New York
Tribune. July 25, 1898. 3 (Dr. Orlando Ducker).
O'Connor, Margaret Anne, "The Not-So-Great War: Cather Family Letters
and the Spanish American War," Cather
Studies. (Lincoln NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), Vol.
6, 4, 6. (Bruce Payne)
Post, Charles Johnson, The
Little War of Private Post. (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska, 1999), 202.
"Wounds," The Hawaiian Star.
(Honolulu, HI), June 20, 1898, 4. (Grover Flint's information,
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